"A new type of sapiens populates the planet"

25 sep. 2019 English Section
"A new type of sapiens populates the planet"

The development and spread of artificial intelligence has changed both the way we think about the world, as well as the knowledge processes. The turning point is both technological, as well as spiritual and philosophical. Major questions which have marked the evolution of the Western thought are coming back into focus. And Benanti's voice is one of the clearest in the contemporary world. Truly open to innovation, it follows with passion and transcendence the evolution of the limits to knowledge towards ambitious objectives, without missing out the fact that man and his values are essential. "Only if we know how to include - he explains in the introduction to his work - humanity in creating these intelligent machines, we can avoid creating, in the nearer or farther future, inhuman societies". That is the extremely important warning which needs to be considered by the leading classes of all levels.

(Interview with Paolo Benanti, professor of technology ethics, the Gregorian Pontifical University)  

Massimiliano Cannata: Professor Benanti, what else should we know about artificial intelligence so that we overcome our current feelings of fear and amazement that predominate in various social context?

Paolo Benanti: I would like to look at this subject from a different perspective. What we are noticing today in society is not as much as fear, as anxiety, generated by the discovery of a new "instrument". Perhaps it is unusual for a simple instrument to be the cause of this anxiety, but it is not the first time this happens. With the invention of convex lenses in the 16th century, two very powerful instruments have appeared: the telescope and microscope. The former gave us the possibility to investigate the macro level of our existence, and the second, the micro level. From that point on, everything we knew about the universe changed, we understood that the Earth was not the center of the solar system and that we are made up of an infinite number of cells.

Massimiliano Cannata: Could we say that at the current stage in history we are witnessing a similar revolution of modernity?

Paolo Benanti: There are many similarities. There is a PC that processes information, it generates a new instrument called macroscope, an instrument which allows us to study the most complex aspect of existence.

Operating with huge quantities of data, is currently an essential garrison for expanding the scope of our knowledge.

What is happening right now in our current areas of study offers us a perspective on expanding the limits of our knowledge.

Massimiliano Cannata: Can you give us a few examples?

Paolo Benanti: Neurosciences, whose very advanced technologies have proven that our existence relies on an ecosystem of complex neuronal relations, but also economics and engineering use the analysis of huge volumes of information to analyze reality. Therefore, we need to be aware that we are in going through an epoch change stage, which, as we have previously mentioned, is causing the appearance of anxiety similar to the one experienced in the beginning of the modern age.

Massimiliano Cannata: How should such a radical change be approached?

Paolo Benanti: The current changes aren't negative, they don't have to be looked at in fear, but they also need to be looked at with a critical mind. Like the saying it goes, you shouldn't try to stop the wind empty handed. But, as beings recorded with intelligence and reason, we can use discernment to allow us to embrace the opportunities that arise in the changing universe. Do robots have more advanced knowledge than ours?

Massimiliano Cannata: When we speak about intelligent machines we speak about them like about some kind of "monsters" which will know more about us than we do and which are going to lead us?

Paolo Benanti: That topic is very sensitive and we all need to agree on it. Seventy thousand years ago when we moved out of Africa to live across the Earth, our behavior was extremely different than that of other animals. Had a mammoth moved from the Siberian steppes to Africa or Asia, before venturing into its new stage of its evolutionary history, it also would have needed to wait for its evolution towards a new mammoth specimen without its very thick fur. Man didn't have to wait for anything, it was ready and equipped from the beginning with the necessary tools for his long journey towards progress. In other words, things that are limited on a DNA level for other beings, to us is something free and allows the intelligent use of technological artifacts. This technological artifact is that "trace" which allows us to populate the world, in other words, is an important method of manifesting humanity.

Massimiliano Cannata: Don't you think that these "instruments" made available by the telematic systems are different than the ones in the past?

Paolo Benanti: It is true. There was a time where an artifact was that item that was bound to the hand. Then the industrial revolution came and then the machines appeared, which can perform various operations under the programming and guidance of man, without ever getting tired.

Massimiliano Cannata: Does AI represent a step forward in the civilization of machines?

Paolo Benanti: Definitely yes. These machines you are referring to are not just systems we program, but we actually teach them to perform certain operations. I am talking here about AI and machine learning. The revolution that we are talking about refers to the fact that up until now we thought that learning was an exclusively human prerogative. We are dealing with a new type of "sapiens" which lives on the planet, and the challenge is now understanding these new machines.

Massimiliano Cannata: In this context comes the issue of understanding the physiognomy of these new species. What level are we on on the matter?

Paolo Benanti: That is the problem we are faced with. When speaking about the "sapiens machine" we are thinking of the people's feelings that they are no longer the only ones capable achieving intelligent things on this Earth. We have to get used to this epistemological jump which up to this moment has stood out so powerfully and strongly. The correlation between the huge quantities of information and the ability of a PC to understand them has opened up unimaginable horizons.

Massimiliano Cannata: So do engineers and computer experts have a clear advantage in that area? They are the ones who can easily find their way in that web of codes and information...

Paolo Benanti: It is partially true that the paradigm we are talking about seems to rely on engineering knowledge. But an old saying by Heraclitus springs to mind that the Delphi Oracle didn't talk, nor keep silent, it just had meaning.

Massimiliano Cannata: Can you explain that statement to those who are less familiarized with myth and the history of religions?

Paolo Benanti: In contemporary terms, it means we can interact with computers that feed on data through algorithms. And to keep the analogy, we can look at these machines as deities capable of issuing some oracle-like prophecies about reality.

Massimiliano Cannata: Let's not forget that man is left with the exclusive prerogative of hermeneutic capacity. Would that be our only hope of survival?

Paolo Benanti: That is true. Intelligent machines shouldn't enter a Darwinian competition with man, they need to become its allies.

Governing the AI

Massimiliano Cannata: Another interesting subject of the essay is that of governing AI. Who should this delicate activity be entrusted to and what structure should it have?

Paolo Benanti: Governing represents the ancient translation of an ancient process. The Western tradition that we use as a foundation dates back from the age of the "polis" as a method for organizing society. The square is the central point, the place where various members of society meet to discuss the common good. Therefore, starting from that reasoning, it bears mentioning that a good governing the AI sector will not be achieved when the directives come from up high. Spaces will have to be created where the competent people will try to combine technological progress with the effective development of the managed community. In short, we need to imagine the existence of an open agora where the collective intelligence will manage the overwhelming technological advancement of this period for the common good.

Massimiliano Cannata: Humanized technologies. Is it a project or just a simple wish?

Paolo Benanti: When speaking about RenAIssance we want to emphasize the attempt to remove information from the center of the digital world to reinforce the main role of man, as has happened in the last season of humanism.

Massimiliano Cannata: The game of skills and knowledge always defiantly returns. A study conducted by the Fondazione Poste and Oxford University has as its main goal the lack of competences. What kind of profiles will we need to be able to operate in this complex world?

Paolo Benanti: There are problems with education and training. Man needs to once again have the ability to decode what is happening. The human sciences curriculum needs to be updated, so that people have the ability to interpret this epistemological change and to use the technical skills which allow us to understand what is happening with these "boxes" that algorithms are. As long as we are going to look at algorithms as black boxes, they will decide for us. In short, the new competences have to allow us to make these black boxes transparent.

Business, face to face with the fourth revolution

Massimiliano Cannata: Another aspect that we need to understand is to what degree is the workforce ready for the impact of "the fourth revolution". While unions and companies are still trying to understand these changes, the social doctrine has already taken a stance on the issue of protecting human and worker rights. Can Pope Francis serve as a "replacement"?

Paolo Benanti: There is an ecclesiastic culture which makes it its goal to have a "fomenting" role at the level of the entire society. The issue arises when it comes to the meaning of these essential topics which need social and theological reflection. It seems legitimate and necessary that the Pope's involvement would go in that direction.

Massimiliano Cannata: Ethics and technological development. Emanuele Severino stresses some concerns in his writing. Are they unfounded?

Paolo Benanti: Severino does have a rather blunt position. In fact, we know that technology does not mean just the blind will to lead, but also has a set of answers for the questions which man asks around his surrounding reality. In the past, when man felt threatened by reality, it has invented the instrument called rifle. That rifle not only became an offensive instrument, but also a hermeneutic one, which makes me divide the world into friends and enemies. And that is where the technological artifact comes in, in response to a question about reality. Only if I am aware of that question which underlies the artifact la can I have an ethical relationship with it.

Massimiliano Cannata: Thank you!

Paolo Benanti, Franciscan monk, member of the Third Regular Order - I was born on July 20th, 1973. As professor at the Gregorian Pontifical University, my main subjects of interest are ethics, bioethics and technology ethics. My studies are focusing in particular on the management of innovation: the internet and the impact of the digital era, biotechnology as a means of human development and bio-safety, as well as neuroscience. I am interested in particular in the ethical and anthropological impact of technology on Homo sapiens, taking into consideration that our species has been living on this planet and transforming it for 70,000 years, and as such, the human condition is a techno-human condition. Author of 15 books and 100 scientific articles.

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